Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Rather unusually, on this Sunday one of the lectionary readings can be repeated. ‘The Magnificat’ is a rapturous song of praise that Mary offers to God when she realizes she is to be the Mother of Jesus – ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord’. It can be used in place of the Psalm, and then heard for a second time as the centerpiece of the Gospel reading.
The Visitation -- Jacopo da Pontormo (1494-1556)
Mary has walked to a distant village to visit to her cousin Elizabeth. It is from Elizabeth that she receives final confirmation of how remarkable her position is: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. Like the Magnificat itself, these words have also become a widely used and long established prayer in the worship of the Church.
The Magnificat, which is unique to Luke’s Gospel, has been said and sung innumerably many times over many centuries. This is powerful testimony to its deep spiritual significance for Christian believers in every time and place.

Oddly, though, sheer familiarity can actually deafen us to the mysterious story it reflects. God’s mighty work of redemption, the point and purpose of the whole created cosmos, begins in a remote part of the Roman Empire with the unexpected pregnancy of a teenage girl from a tiny village. It is Mary’s acceptance of what might well bring her shame and degradation that inaugurates the spiritual transformation of human kind through the life and death of Jesus.
Roman ruins
‘From now on all generations will call me blessed’. This is such an unlikely scenario that Mary’s words seem absurd. The world in which she lived was a man's world dominated by one of the greatest and most enduring empires in human history. And yet she was right. The Roman Empire has vanished so completely, only a few archeological traces remain, while at Christmas billions of people, to whom Caesar and Herod are literally ancient history, will nevertheless give thanks for Mary’s role in their redemption, and call her ‘blessed’. What plainer evidence could there be that God has indeed ‘brought down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly’?

Monday, December 7, 2015


'Even now, the ax is lying at the root of the trees'

In this week’s readings the Advent theme of judgment rises to a crescendo. In the Old Testament lesson, the prophet Zephaniah tells Israel to rejoice because God has ended the terrible catalogue of acts of judgment that have befallen his Chosen People. The defeat of their enemies is at hand because God Himself will come amongst them. A Canticle from Isaiah (in the place of the usual Psalm) repeats the theme and tells the inhabitants of Zion to ‘Cry aloud, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel’. The brief lesson from Philippians provides a New Testament echo – rejoice because ‘the Lord is near’.
The Gospel, however, has a rather different tone. This is John the Baptist at his sternest. No mention of rejoicing, just a dreadful warning. John addresses those same inhabitants of Zion, as ‘You brood of vipers’ – no better than snakes squirming across the sand to avoid the flames that will destroy them. No good saying, ‘But we are the Chosen People!’ This gives neither right nor privilege, because God could just as easily choose stones to be his servants. True repentance, John declares, will indeed make a difference, but only if it includes giving up all the little conventional sins that everyone expects householders, soldiers and tax collectors to commit.
The Mystical Nativity - Botticelli (1500)
Will they then see the Messiah, the mighty warrior whose coming Zephaniah and Isaiah herald? Could the ferocious John be Him? No, someone even more powerful is coming. This true Messiah will come amongst us in order to separate the wheat and burn the chaff ‘with unquenchable fire’.
Somewhat strangely, the passage ends by saying that John proclaimed ‘good news’ to the people. How could exhortations of such ferocity be good news?  Here we get the first inkling that true ‘salvation’ will be quite different to what the Israelites supposed would happen, and to the things that we in our time might long for.  The ‘warrior in your midst who gives victory’ will be born in a stable, not a palace, and die on a Cross. That revelation truly was, and is, a mystery, the mystery of the Incarnation that millions of Christians across the world are about to celebrate.